The “Long Tong” Festival of the Tay

The Tay ethnic group dwells mainly in the border provinces of North Viet Nam, with big settlements in Cao Bang, Lang Son and Bac Kan provinces. The Tay have retained most of their national traditions and customs, including a most popular festival held in early spring each year, called the “Long Tong” festival.
“Long Tong” means going to the field.
The festival usually starts on the 3rd or 5th of the 1st lunar month and lasts until the end of the 1st lunar month. It comprise two parts: the ceremony and the games.
Early on the first day of the Festival, the families carry trays of offerings to the communal house where the “Agriculture Genius”, and other persons credited with reclaiming agricultural land, building and protecting the villages are worshipped. This is similar to the practice of worshipping the “Village Genius” as practices by the Kinh (Vietnamese). The trays of offerings are put in the communal house. Or, if there is not enough space, they are put in a field near it. Each tray of conventional food offerings contains cooked chicken, steamed glutinous rice, and a bottle of liquor. Trays of non-conventional food offerings have no meat, and only contain pies immersed in honey, fried pies, patties of mashed rice, or sugared rice compote. Some trays even have 4 or 5 layers: three bowls of food offerings are put on the tray supporting one layer which contains three other bowls which, in turn, support another layer. Each tray contains an item that cannot be eaten, a ball (called in Tay language as “Con”), which is actually a bag of sand wrapped in colour cloth and sewn up like a ball, with a tail made from fringes of various colours. Of course, the offerings and the way they are arranged on the tray vary from one area to another.
After the offerings have been placed, the ceremony begins with the village head reading a text of prayers in honour of the Agriculture Genius and the other worshipped dignitaries. Then all those present bow before the altar.
As the ceremony ends, the village head brandishes a ball three times and then hands it to a young man standing nearby, signaling the start of the games.
The first game involves a tall bamboo pole planted in a large yard. It is known as the “Con” tree. At the top of the “Con” tree is a circle of bamboo covered with a thin sheet of paper. The circle is the target at which the “Con” balls must be thrown. A round of drumbeats signals the start of the game. Group of two persons takes turns in throwing the ball at the target: the successful competitor will be the one whose ball pierces through the sheet of paper covering the bamboo circle. The winner receives a prize of money contained in a red enveloped. Hitting the target is no easy task! The bamboo pole is very high and the bamboo circle is rather small. Many people try their luck many times without achieving any results. The game can go on and on for several hours. There are years when no one can hit the target. Several days later, the village head has to ask a villager to shoot at the circle with a flint-lock gun.
The second ball game is played between two groups of boys and girls with boys throwing balls at the girls with whom they want to make friends. The girls catch the balls and threw them back at the boys. The game goes on until the evening when the players part after tying some souvenirs in the fringes of balls thrown at their partners. The tryst is either for next year’s festival or some closer date.
When night comes, boys and girls engage in the performance of “luon” songs. The songs focus on New Year congratulations, hopes and wishes of good luck, and then heartfelt messages of love which invariably prolong the party to dawn, despite the cold night and the dew.
In some areas, the uniform dance is also included in the programme of the “Long Tong” festival. The dance is performed by both local teams and teams coming from neighbouring villages. Each team comprises over ten people; the dancer who holds the head and tail of the unicorn, the masked man who acts as the “monkey” which fights against the unicorn, the drummer, the gong player, and some reserves. Each group is actually composed of young martial arts learners who wield various wooden weapons during the dance.
As a rule, the unicorn team that arrives first is acknowledged as the senior team and is entitled to play a leading role. Those who come later must attach a piece of red cloth on the chin of the first unicorn, as a mark of respect for the senior team. If a team has performed at many annual “Long Tong” festivals it may carry a piece of black cloth as an acknowledgement of its expertise.

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